Fifteen Facts about Fireweed

  1. Fireweed Chamerion angustifolium is so named because it is the first plant to spread like a welcome weed following a fire.
  2. A single fireweed plant produces an incredible 80,000 seeds! Each seed is equipped with tiny umbrella-like tufts that allows them to soar through the air peppering the entire landscape with pink possibilities.
  3. The main reason fireweed moves in after a fire is simply because it can! It is undeterred by ash-covered low nutrient soil and as the latter part of its name indicates, its weedy tendencies practically cackle in anticipation when presented with a barren landscape with no competition from other plants.
  4. While its seeds are prolific, its roots are what really earns fireweed its weed status. Every plant sends out a massive network of rhizomes. The tiniest portion readily creates another plant. The roots are tough enough to survive the intense heat from a forest fire. As soon as things cool down, the roots are off and running once again. These roots create a welcome underground mat that helps stabilize soil and reduce erosion following a fire.
  5. Fireweed goes by many other names including Rosebay (popular in the UK) and Willowherb – a nod to its willow-like leaves and overall structure. Its former Latin name was Epilobium angustifolium but the one commonly used today is Chamerion angustifolium.
  6. Fireweed contains trace elements of iron, copper, nickel, potassium and calcium, as well as being rich in vitamins A and C.
  7. All parts are edible through all stages of growth, but it can have a mild laxative effect. The First Nation peoples often used fireweed to treat intestinal worms or general stomach upsets. The plant was also used (fittingly enough) for soothing burns, as well as other skin conditions. It can even be included in your beauty regime to treat acne. Fireweed is anti-inflammatory, anti-irritant, antimicrobial and antiseptic.
  8. Popular culinary uses of fireweed include jellies and teas. It is sometimes referred to as “wild asparagus” because its early spring shoots can be prepared and eaten in a manner similar to the popular vegetable.
  9. Fireweed is the official flower of the Yukon Territory, Canada. A popular misbelief is that it is also the state flower for Alaska. People are often surprised to learn that Alaska’s official flower is actually the wild forget-me-not instead of the far more prolific and showy fireweed.
  10. Fireweed is regarded as a sort of calendar. Blossoms open from the bottom up, indicating the height of summer has arrived. As the blooms progress their way up the stems, summer slowly comes to an end. By the time the tips are blooming, those who pay attention to such things, know that summer is waning. When the gorgeous pink blooms finish, they turn to wooly, white seed heads that resemble cotton, giving rise to the expression, “when fireweed turns to cotton, summer will soon be forgotten”.
  11. Fireweed tea is made by stripping green leaves from the stalk, gently bruising and then drying them. Once they are completely dry they can be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dark place and used for teas to treat stomach upsets or topical treatments over the winter months. Russians make a fermented version called Koporye, Ivan-Chai or simply Russian Tea that is reputed to treat all kinds of conditions ranging from high blood pressure to reducing stress to boosting immunity. At one time it was the dominant trading tea of choice before being overshadowed by teas from India and China. Many feel it is sadly overlooked today, much to the detriment of our health.
  12. In optimum conditions fireweed can grow to a whopping three metres (nine feet) tall! More commonly the plant tops out just upwards of the one metre (three foot) range.
  13. Fireweed will happily thrive in your garden, providing you with your own homegrown source of this valuable herb. HOWEVER, DO take care to plant it in an isolated bed of its own where it won’t take over and be sure to trim the spent blooms before they go to seed. Your garden (and neighbours) will thank you!
  14. Fireweed is a valuable pollinator plant, beloved by bees. It produces a delicate, light honey referred to as “the champagne of floral honey” and is always in high demand at farmer and specialty markets.
  15. For the final fact, Fireweeds have inspired much poetic waxing over the years. Who can witness a once barren landscape erupting in flamboyant fuchsia blooms and not be deeply moved? In this spirit I close this post with a poem written by Cicely Mary Barker from her book Flower Fairies of the Wayside published in 1948.

On the breeze my fluff is blown; So my airy seeds are sown. Where the earth is burnt and sad, I will come and make it glad. All forlorn and ruined places, All neglected empty spaces, I can cover-only think!-with a mass of rosy pink. Burst then, seed-pods, breezes, blow! Far and wide my seeds shall go!

Cicely Mary Barker, 1948 Flower Fairies of the Wayside